Sax and the Cities

From his hometown of Fort Worth to hippie San Francisco and hip New York, jazz journeyman Dewey Redman has always been a player.

May 2000By Comments

It’s a windy October day in Fort Worth, and Dewey Redman is talking about Elvis Presley’s boxer shorts. For hours, sitting among piles of boxes in his late mother’s south side home, the 68-year-old jazz dignitary has been telling stories and smoking every cigarette he can wrangle from his wife. “I mean, somebody paid five thousand dollars,” he says with a laugh, the can-you-believe-it look widening his face, “for a pair of Elvis’ underwear.”

With the conversation winding down, Dewey’s guard has lowered. Revved, he punches the air for emphasis. He’s on to Sting now — specifically, the rock star’s tardy discovery that one of his employees was an embezzler. “Nine. Million. Dollars.” He spills the words slowly enough to be spelling them. “If somebody stole nine million dollars from me, hey, I think I would know it. I mean, these cats make so much money. But more power to them.”

More power to them: a dated mantra tacked on to explain what is, to Dewey, the unexplainable. The tenor saxophonist has spent a storied career in the company of revered musicians, yet financial success has eluded him. He’s made more than a dozen modest-selling albums under his own name and has come to be best known as the father of his much more celebrated son. Now 31, Joshua Redman — also a tenor saxophonist — has been in the limelight since besting other new artists to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition in 1991; in contemporary jazz circles, he’s as close as it gets to a household name and earns a better living than Dewey ever has or will.

“I figured out a long time ago, before I left Texas, that I was never going to make a lot of money,” Dewey says. “If I just could survive those five years playing music, that would be great.” Five years was his self-imposed limit when he quit a secure teaching job to become a full-time performer. For much of his life, such restrictions have left him lingering on the cusp of fame. Even when he followed his heart, it was a heart not always certain of what it wanted.

Dewey Redman didn’t want to be a musician — at least not at first. He grew up in Fort Worth moderately poor, an only child who hardly knew his father. Segregation left its scar. He recalls the Colored Only signs in buses, separate lines for black and white Santa Clauses, the white thugs who tossed a cupful of urine on his mother.

His love of music grew from his surroundings. The juke joint across from the Redman family home was strictly off-limits, but strains from the R&B jukebox floated by, and he got to know every song. When he was older, he would sneak into dances where Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, and others burned up the stage, but he was there only to watch and listen. “I would just sort of hang out after they got through playing,” he says. “Ten of them would get in one car, and they’d have to drive five hundred miles to the next town. It seemed this was not the life for me.”

All black students in Fort Worth attended the same high school, so Dewey played clarinet in a marching band alongside future jazz greats Charles Moffett and Ornette Coleman, who lived across town. Yet while his mates spent their off hours in bands honing their skills, Dewey was looking toward college and an eventual career. He enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to study electrical engineering, “not realizing,” he says, “how much math is in that. So I started hanging around the [school’s] band, and I forgot about calculus and all that, and at the end of the first trimester they sent my ass home.” He returned to Texas and signed on at Prairie View A&M College, graduating in 1953 with a degree in industrial arts (he minored in music) and a new specialty, the tenor sax. Two years in the Army followed, and when he returned to Texas, he took a job as a band director, first in Plainview and then in Bastrop. He spent his summers in Denton earning a master’s degree at North Texas State College, yet he never set foot in the respected music school’s band room. He gigged frequently in Austin, though, blowing his tenor at the Victory Grill.

In 1960 he decided it was time. “Five years in New York, to get it out of my system,” he says. “I could come back to Texas and teach school, but I could always say that I went to New York.” He took the long way there, venturing first to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco for what was supposed to be a two-week trip. He was unprepared for what he found in the Bay Area in the early sixties: “I was there at the beginning of the Vietnam War protests; there were flower children, smoke-ins, Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. I used to see Janis Joplin walking down the street. It was a great place to be, man.” Seduced, he would stay for seven years.

The close-knit jazz community nurtured Dewey. Locals like John Handy and Pharoah Sanders were joined by an array of touring talent. When the likes of Johnny Griffin or Sonny Rollins rolled into town, Dewey was there, watching their every move. He rented a piano to study chord changes, and he made the scene with his band at Bop City, the happening after-hours club. One night he looked out from the stage to see John Coltrane in the audience. When the hungry upstart asked the veteran for advice, he netted only two words: “Practice, man.” Dewey’s initial anger gave way to an epiphany. “Can’t nobody teach you how to play,” he realized. “You have to get it yourself.”

But it was a chance meeting with an old acquaintance that would change the course of his life. “I was in the Haight-Ashbury district, passing by a nightclub, and I heard music coming out of this club,” says Ornette Coleman, who left Fort Worth in the fifties and went on to create remarkable music of the sort that the world had never experienced. “I walked in and sat down, and it was Dewey. I knew he was in San Francisco, but I didn’t think it could be him because when I last saw him he was playing the clarinet. When he got through, he came down and asked, ‘Did you recognize what I was playing? It was one of your songs.’ I told him it was really fantastic.” Coleman gave Dewey the shove he needed. “I thought Dewey was never going to be able to achieve what he wanted to playing in San Francisco, because at that time everyone was following their own muse.”

Dewey finally made the move east, though even after woodshedding in San Francisco, he was insecure about his chances in New York. He had recorded a rollicking free-jazz debut album, Look for the Black Star, and had grown considerably as an artist. Yet at 36, he was much older than most of the New York scenesters, and musicians he had met on the West Coast were snubbing him. Worse, his first Manhattan gig came with a sucker punch. “It was Sonny Simmons, Sunny Murray, and me,” Dewey recalls. “End of the first set, a brother comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, man, what is your name?’ I said, ‘Dewey Redman.’ He says, ‘You just got in town, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Oh, wow, how long have you been here?’ I said, ‘A month or so.’ Then he asks me, ‘Where are you from, brother?’ I said, ‘I’m from Texas, actually, but I came from San Francisco.’ And he said, ‘You need to go back to Texas ’cause you sound like shit.'” Clearly, his summer of love was over.

Dewey frequented Coleman’s SoHo loft, where they jammed with Anthony Braxton, among other greats. “Ornette would play for awhile, and then he would stop for awhile,” Dewey recalls. From there the relationship grew. “One day he said, ‘We’re gonna record with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones [Coltrane’s longtime rhythm section].’ We had a couple of rehearsals, but I was terrified, man.” Eventually Garrison would calm him down, and the sessions — Dewey’s second time ever in a recording studio — would prove fruitful, yielding Coleman’s 1968 Blue Note albums New York Is Now and Love Call. Dewey’s tenor infused the proceedings with an improvisational spirit that irrevocably forced him into the forefront of New York’s avant-garde.

Suddenly, Dewey was hot. “I was in a trio with Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian in the late sixties,” remembers longtime Coleman associate Charlie Haden. “Keith had heard Dewey on some of Ornette’s records and loved his playing. When I introduced Dewey to him, he made it a quartet.” The persnickety Jarrett, with his by-the-book approach, was nothing at all like Coleman, who implored his musicians to “create as if you were the leader.” Dewey toured Europe and America with both bands and recorded an album with Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

Despite all this activity, however, Dewey’s own work was his primary concern. He found time to release four well-reviewed albums in the seventies, full of soulful and haunting compositions; yet his late start seemed to keep him one step behind his peers. Wonderfully conceived and executed, his own cutting-edge material was overshadowed and overlooked.

Though Coleman was off the scene at the end of the seventies, Dewey would find himself again in the midst of the visionary’s influence. Guitarist Pat Metheny’s 80/81 was a Coleman-inspired tribute that featured Redman and Haden. Old and New Dreams was even more of an homage — a group consisting of Redman and the three original members of Coleman’s quartet (Haden, Don Cherry, and Ed Blackwell). “Ornette wasn’t playing then, and we wanted to keep the music going,” Haden explains. “We made an identity for the band and made albums and everybody loved them. I think Old and New Dreams is one of the best bands that ever played.”

Jazz fans everywhere agreed, but the positive reaction doubled back on Dewey. “A strange thing happened,” he says. “I would go to promoters, and they’d say, ‘No, man, we’re not going to hire you on your own. If you play with Old and New Dreams, then we’ll hire you.’ I couldn’t get gigs. So one day I called up Charlie and Blackwell and Cherry and I said, ‘Look, man, get another saxophone player, ’cause I got to have my little thing.'” Indeed, to the consternation of the others, he turned down many lucrative tour offers. “It was very difficult for me,” he says. “For two or three years I didn’t work at all. I don’t know how I made it.” During this period, he did manage to record one of his finest albums, The Struggle Continues, one of only four released under his name in the eighties. And, in time, he was able to gig on his own again, but Old and New Dreams’ high profile did little to advance his solo career. “Dewey is a very nice person,” explains Coleman. “I get the feeling that he hasn’t had the support musically and hasn’t had the exposure he would like to achieve. So he’s always in a low key.”

The past few years have been difficult for Dewey. Though his album output doubled in the nineties, almost all of them were released by small, less visible labels like Enja and Palmetto. (Momentum Space, a recording of a 1999 trio date with Elvin Jones and Cecil Taylor, was put out by Verve — his first major label release in years.) He has suffered personal setbacks as well. In 1997 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer; though the disease is in remission, he is on medication and must constantly monitor his health. And last summer, his mother passed away. The day I saw him, he was back in Fort Worth to put her affairs in order, having timed the trip to coincide with an Austin concert a few nights earlier. That show — at which he emphasized his straight-ahead jazz skills, his avant-garde credentials notwithstanding — was his first Texas appearance in several years. These days, he claims, he can’t even get a gig in his own hometown.

As Dewey has mellowed, his relationship with Joshua has grown. “It’s funny, I find that the more I discover my own original voice, the more I’m starting to hear greater connections between what I do and what my father does,” Joshua says. “There’s a certain spirit and soulfulness and a kind of blues inflection and a certain approach to tone.” Joshua, who reports without the slightest bitterness that he was raised “exclusively” by his mother, graduated from Harvard University and was on his way to law school when his love of music intervened. He got to know Dewey well only as an adult, joining him and his band to record and tour. “I’ve always realized that there’s a very vague and indirect correlation between someone’s talent as a musician and what they have to say artistically and their success in the professional world of music,” Joshua says. “I’ve never seen my success, or what might be perceived to be my father’s lack of success, as in any way reflective of what we’re doing musically.”

Dewey is proud of each of his three sons — who were born to different women — but the famous one remains a constant reminder of what could have been. Fans have given him Joshua’s albums to sign, asking questions like “Do you play music too?” “My son has gotten everything that I never got: All the awards, and he’s sold over a million CDs. He’s just a remarkable young man. But it makes you wonder . . . “

He smiles impishly as he delivers what is no doubt a well-practiced line: “I tried to teach him how to be successful, but I don’t think he listened to me.”

Jeff McCord wrote about Negro League baseball players from Texas in the August 1999 issue of Texas Monthly.

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